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With care, these plants can thrive in the Florida soil

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002

Reader Nancy Love of Carrollwood has some questions about the plumbagos and bougainvilleas she planted along a wall. Love chose these plants for the blooms and the low maintenance. But she is disappointed because they are not thriving and not blooming as expected. The plants face the west with a drainage ditch running in front of them, allowing the soil to stay on the dry side.

Love does not say how long the plants have been in the ground, but she seems to provide a good environment for both plants. I'll review the plant needs and hope this helps her.

Plumbago is a hardy plant, and once it is established, some find it almost a nuisance. I know mine grows through the fence, and periodically I have to go to my neighbor's yard to trim it back and pull out the seedlings. If I let it, plumbago would take over the entire southeast corner of my yard. Like many plants in Florida, it seems to take a while to get established. A native of South Africa, it loves the Florida climate.

Plumbago is an evergreen shrub with whip-like semi-woody stems forming a loose, rounded mound 3 to 10 feet high with a similar spread. It can be pruned to grow as a vine or kept more compact as a shrub. The leaves are a fresh, light yellowish green with white or sky blue flowers. It blooms in all but coolest winter months.

It does best in light, sandy soils with good drainage. A heavy pruning will not bother this plant, and often encourages it to grow even denser and bloom more prolifically. It prefers full sun, and flowering will be reduced in partial shade. The shrub produces its flowers on the current season's growth, so a late winter pruning is best.

It is considered moderately drought-tolerant and survives with little supplemental watering once established. It definitely does not like its roots sitting in water.

In the landscape plumbago is used in borders, foundation plantings and for massed color in beds. It can also be pruned as a formal edge. Its rambling nature makes it a good candidate for a flowering ground cover also. Used in large containers, the foliage and flowers spill over the edge like a waterfall. This plant attracts butterflies, too.

Now, all that information makes this plant appear easy to cultivate, and normally it is. But it can have a manganese deficiency. Applying manganese sulfate will cure that problem. Yellow foliage is the indicator. A general blooming fertilizer a couple times a year may also be helpful. A 10-10-10 or 6-10-10 is good enough.

The bougainvillea is another plant well suited for our area. These tropical vines are native to Brazil. They produce masses of showy blooms, which are actually bracts that look like bits of colorful tissue paper. Bougainvilleas grow and bloom in cycle, similar to roses. Bloom cycles are usually five to six weeks, than all the bracts fall. Between blooming cycles, new leaves and stems grow.

They often bloom all year round. A cold winter may kill the leaves. If this happens, once all danger of frost has passed, cut the branches down to within 4or 5 inches of the ground. Be careful; even though the foliage is gone, there are still very wicked thorns. Wear heavy gloves when pruning. After you prune, it won't take long for new growth to begin. These plants like plenty of heat and sun and are best grown in a mostly sunny location. Six to eight hours of direct sunlight are necessary for the best blooms.

Fertilize every five or six weeks after each bloom cycle. Potassium nitrate type fertilizers will aid in bloom formation. Using a water-soluble fertilizer requires more frequent fertilizing and may result in over watering. A good slow release granular fertilizer is best.

Keep your bougainvillea evenly moist, allowing the soil to dry somewhat between waterings. Soggy soil will kill this plant. Some believe that allowing the foliage to wilt slightly between waterings can enhance blooming. If you think your bougainvillea is not blooming as it should, you may want to try that. Over-watering and poor drainage may cause chlorosis, leading to light green or yellowing leaves with darker veins.

Worms and aphids are the major pests of this plant. If holes are observed in the leaves, then the worms are present even if you can't see them. These worms attach themselves to the plant and are the same color as the stems. Use a chemical pesticide and follow directions for application.

Bougainvilleas can grow huge, so make sure they have plenty of room to spread. With their sharp thorns they are not a plant you want to prune any more than absolutely necessary. They can be trained on either a trellis or a fence and their size makes them a wonderful screening plant if you have the room.

Plumbago and bougainvillea both are popular plants in our area. If planted in a proper location and given the required minimal care, they can bloom and flourish for many years.

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